News & Events

February 11, 2015

O Canada and the Maple Leaf

The following piece by Michael Adams appears in the 150 Canada series published by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Growing up in the 1950s, I was under the impression that God Save the Queen was our national anthem and the Canadian Red Ensign was our national flag, and that it had ever been thus. In fact the Ensign, despite long use, had only officially become Canada’s flag in 1945. It would retain that status for just a couple of decades, since the Maple Leaf was adopted in 1965, the day after Valentine’s Day.

As for the anthem, that was a live question. In English Canada, God Save the Queen was widely used. In Quebec, where people were less than eager to celebrate Her Majesty in song, O Canada was the default.  Another contender, The Maple Leaf Forever, made its way into Legion halls but its lyrics, “In days of yore, from Britain’s shore, Wolfe the dauntless hero came and planted firm Britannia’s flag on Canada’s fair domain,” did not resonate well in La Belle Province.

At my first high school, Thistletown Collegiate Institute in Rexdale, God Save the Queen was played every morning over the PA system. When I was in Grade 10 (1961-62), somehow inspired by the emerging nationalist and progressive spirit of that decade, I requested an appointment with our principal George Hull to discuss this practice. At our meeting, I politely asked Mr. Hull why our school’s daily opening exercises included the playing of the anthem of a foreign country. “Because the Queen of England is also the Queen of Canada, Michael,” he said evenly.

When I asked Mr. Hull if he would consider replacing God Save the Queen with O Canada, he responded with a wonderful lesson in what it is to be Canadian. He asked for a few days to consider my request. The following week, having consulted his faculty of young teachers, he called me down to his office and, to my delight, proposed that the school alternate between God Save the Queen and O Canada. I almost cried with joy and pride. The two songs were played on alternating days until I graduated.

I can’t say for sure, but I assume this system remained in place until 1967, when O Canada was adopted as the country’s official anthem – a move that followed on Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s declaration that Canada needed one official anthem (not two different ones, selected for any given occasion according to the political leanings and ancestral ties of the assembled group). I don’t know what they play at my old school these days; presumably the latest bilingual version of O Canada.

Despite my youthful eagerness to instigate urgent symbolic changes, I had no proposal for what to run up the school’s flagpole. (I guess the marijuana leaf had yet to enter my naïve suburban consciousness.) Thistletown continued to fly the Red Ensign, and presumably did so until the Maple Leaf flag became official, by which point I was in university.

Over time, both O Canada and the Maple Leaf flag have made their way into the hearts of Canadians. When we ask Canadians to rate the importance of various national symbols, three-quarters say the flag is very important (73 per cent) and two-thirds (66 per cent) say the same of O Canada, according to the Environics Institute – Focus Canada 2012 survey. Only the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (rated as very important by 78 per cent) and our public health care system (a very important national symbol to 85 per cent of us) rate higher than the Maple Leaf flag. (Although God Save the Queen remains Canada’s royal anthem, the monarch herself is far from the first thing Canadians think of when they imagine their country: just 16 per cent of us rate the Queen as a very important Canadian symbol.)

Although having our own flag and anthem is popular today, at the time not everybody embraced the change. The Progressive Conservatives under former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker disliked the idea of a distinctly Canadian flag that excluded the Union Jack (which was featured on the flags of other Commonwealth countries). At least one person involved with the flag’s redesign received death threats. But the tide of history had turned against the traditionalist, Imperialist devotees of the Red Ensign. They would have to wait for the election of Stephen Harper to regain a little ground: the Harper government, favourably disposed toward Canada’s colonial past, flies the Red Ensign at Vimy Ridge, the World War I battle site and putative crucible of Canada’s coming-of-age as a nation.

That traditionalist flourish notwithstanding, revisiting the flag and the anthem is not high on any political party’s agenda. The only issue in this regard in recent years has been an effort to restore O Canada’s original gender neutral wording to “true patriot love, in all of us command” instead of “in all thy sons command.” Surprisingly, despite early support for the change from figures as diverse as Margaret Atwood, former Prime Minister Kim Campbell and the federal government, the move was shelved after polls showed that three-quarters of Canadians wanted the anthem left alone.

Many Canadians are comfortable with retaining the symbols we have inherited, and become comfortable with, however anachronistic. Others are interested in reshaping our symbols to reflect current realities and hopes for the future. This tension between tradition and change is an abiding feature of our social life; in my own life as a Canadian, I was very much marked by our school principal’s response to the emergence of this tension in his jurisdiction: respectful consultation and going halfway (the Canadian way) for the time being.

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